The thrill of seeing an elephant or a herd of elephants in the wild has fascinated wildlife enthusiasts who make that special trip to a national park in the hope of seeing this majestic animal.
Tame elephants can also be seen at the Dehiwala Zoo and at times on the roads when they are being taken for peraheras (processions) and other official functions. Even though all elephants belong to the State and are protected according to the law the cruelty imposed on these animals keeps getting worse every day.
In the past elephants were used in peraheras and treated with respect because a tusker carried the Sacred Tooth relic of Lord Buddha on his back. Even though there has been much criticism about elephants being used in peraheras and the fact that there is no historical evidence to prove that Lord Buddha rode on an elephant's back, the animals were continuously used in peraheras and put through immense cruelty by being kept on short chains. The elephants were also used to transport logs from one place to another before the backhoe and heavy vehicles were invented. Elephants were then used for safari rides and a group of people were packed on top of the animal's back and taken on a sight-seeing tour. Elephants are even used for weddings at hotels where the bride and groom ride on top of the animal's back.
But today this majestic animal is used by some famous boys' schools in the country for their cycle parades and walks which are held prior to the big match every year. Environmentalists and animal welfare activists were horrified when a few boys' schools took elephants in their school pageants with the approval of the schools' principals in 2015. Among the boys' schools that paraded elephants draped in their college flag in 2015 were Royal College, and D.S.Senanayake College. This year too, the trend continued with Thurstan College taking an elephant with the college flag draped on the animal's back in the school walk. However the Principal of Royal College has been commended by environmentalists and animal welfare activists for preventing the elephant being taken in the cycle parade this year. According to eyewitnesses an elephant was brought to the area from where the Royal College cycle parade was to commence. The elephant was seen at the location with the college flag draped on its back. However after animal welfare activists spoke to members of the Royal College Old Boys Union, the Royal College Principal B.A. Abeyrathna stopped the elephant from being taken in the parade.
A parent and past pupil of Royal College who is also an environmentalist wrote a letter to the Royal College Principal on 24 February 2016 requesting him to stop taking elephants in school parades. "I was extremely perturbed to see an elephant participating in a procession on 11 March 2015, during midmorning in the cycle parade organized by our school in connection with the 2015 Royal-Thomian match. It is a matter of great concern that the organizers failed to see the inherent dangers and risks in parading an elephant in public. A letter was sent to the Principal Upali Gunasekera at that time asking to discontinue usage of elephants in the college parades, for which I did not receive any reply. While I acknowledge that elephants are considered an integral part of religious pageants, such as peraheras, I am disturbed that an elephant was used for an event such as a cycle parade, probably only to draw public attention, add 'glamour' to the event and gather a crowd, since an elephant has no significance to an event of this nature," the environmentalist said.
The letter further states that according to past experiences elephants have sometimes run riot at peraheras and even killed spectators and damaged property. "Elephants suffer severe stress in surroundings of noise, loud music, crowds, vehicular traffic and while being shackled for long periods. They are then prone to restlessness, and as a result become uncontrollable. In such a situation, they become a grave danger and risk to the public. A lesser known factor is that 90% of captive elephants in Sri Lanka are carriers of Tuberculosis (TB) and can transmit the disease to humans. In the past years, it was decorated trucks (and not caparisoned elephants) that were used as part of the revelries of the Royal - Thomian match, with no harm caused to the public. It is a cruel act to parade elephants, heavily chained, in the scorching sun on tarred roads. It is important to sensitize our younger generation to this issue. I kindly call upon the College authorities to ensure that for the 2016 cycle parade and in the future, no elephants would be used for events connected with the school, in view of the attendant risks and cruelties and also to safeguard the good reputation of the school," the environmentalist explained.
The environmentalist added that other schools should take the good example followed by Royal College and stop using elephants for their school parades and walks.
"Children should be taught in schools about the cruelty to animals and the suffering they undergo for our entertainment. Lately some schools have started using elephants in their parades and I don't know why. It is the duty of school principals to educate children on animal cruelty and encourage them to stop using elephants in parades. I hope the Education Ministry and school principals will take the initiative to stop this new trend of elephants being used for school pageantry. School parades can be made very interesting by the creativity of the students instead of an elephant being used as an attraction. I was very disappointed to see Thurstan College using elephants in their school walk – Walk to Lead! It is very sad that our children have not been educated on the cruelty imposed on these elephants when they are taken in chains in school parades and walks," Founder Embark, Otara Gunewardene told Ceylon Today.